In this blog, Rachel Coaker, Deputy Chief Finance Officer at the CCG, shares some reflections after taking part in a civic trip from Bury to Poland to understand more about the Holocaust and war.
Several years ago, I found out that as a result of an affair, my maternal grandfather was Polish, who for some reason was in Liverpool in 1943. Not much else is known as the family tried to wipe the indiscretion from memory. Were they Jewish or Roma fleeing persecution or were they part of the navy and air forces that supported the war effort? Since finding out, I have always been interested in visiting Poland and understanding more about the Holocaust and war. The opportunity to take part in this civic trip was very welcome.
I really didn’t know what to expect from the trip. I knew that we would be covering a lot of ground, both geographically and things to visit. Nothing could really have prepared me for the reality.
Our tour guide Jeremy was the son of a Holocaust survivor, who not only had dedicated his life to sharing information so the atrocity wouldn’t be forgotten, had the ability to draw you with his passion and incredible stories that brought every element of the trip to vivid life. Not only the pain and sorrow of what happened, but the joy of the relationship that he had with his father, family and wider community.
Our first day started in Warsaw, which was initially, particularly after a 2am start to get to the airport, a bit surreal. We stood in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery next to two mass graves of about 70,000 people and we saw the sewers where tiny children would create supply lines to try to get food to the people starving in the ghettos, amongst other things.
The first day ended with a visit to Treblinka, a Nazi extermination camp. We arrived around dusk as other tourists were returning to the car park, so it was just our group. In this pristine forest, listening to the birds roosting, we walked up to where the train tracks ended and people would get off the packed trains and go to the only destination for them in that place, the gas chamber.
As the Nazis destroyed Treblinka to try to eliminate any evidence of this horrific place, what remains is a memorial, surrounded by jagged rocks that represent all the communities that have been affected by what happened here. After walking around and trying to take it in we stopped at the rock that said ‘Piotrkow’. This is where Jeremy’s dad’s family had been from. All of his immediate family were murdered here. His father the only survivor.
On day two we continued to Majdanek, a brutal place. We saw the camp, the gas chamber, the ovens and the huge memorial with an incomprehensible pile of human ashes that were recovered from the surrounding areas. All of this is still difficult to absorb, but the most shocking thing for me is that this place isn’t hidden in a forest, miles from anywhere. This place was next to a town, in full view. The suffering, the shots, the smoke, the use of human ash to fertilise local farmland was all there, day to day, in full view.
After dinner we went to the Zbilatowska Gora forest in Tarnow. It was dark and sleeting and we walked to the site of several mass graves. We stopped at one. This was the place where 800 children and babies had been murdered and buried. We stood next to the grave and we each had been given a name to read out. One of the one and a half million children who were victims of the Holocaust. Mine was:
Rachel Abrevaya; daughter of Joseph; born in Kavala, Greece; murdered in Treblinka at the age of eight.
Throughout the trip, as a non-Jewish person, the insight in to Jewish life from the places we went, like the synagogues, the Jewish quarters and from experiencing it with the Jewish people on the trip was a privileged insight that I don’t think I would ever had got otherwise. The sense and depth of feeling for family, friends and community and the feeling of shared experience was overwhelming.
The final day finished at Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and Auschwitz I. Seeing in person some of the iconic images together with getting an insight into what life must have been like was difficult. Although destroyed, seeing the size, extent and efficient order to the killing factories was chilling. The centre of a Europe wide rail network with a single destination, hard labour or a gas chamber.
Jeremy had asked us to take a small stone from Auschwitz to put somewhere at home so when we see it, we can think about what we had seen and experienced. He finished the trip reflecting on his view that there are no life changing experiences, only experiences that are so powerful that we then change our lives.
The trip was so amazing, quick, powerful and exhausting that it is difficult to take everything in. It was only when I was on the plane back, sat in front of a baby crying, but the kind of crying where they are really in distress, that part of what I saw and heard started to sink in.
The mum was trying to sooth the little baby and their siblings trying to distract and comfort them. At that point I could imagine what it would be like for that baby and children to be wrenched from their mother or like in one of the stories that we heard, for that mother to be told to choose which of those children she would save and which she would let go.
Throughout the trip I thought about the human condition, wondering how this happened and thought about other current situations like the refugee camps in Syria where thousands of people are displaced, murdered, raped and starving, with the rest of the world watching. Thinking about how in our communities many of the conditions that preceded the war, inequality and poverty, are returning with the associated rise in intolerance.
I wondered whether the reaction of ‘What on earth am I doing with my life?’ is usual and have continued to reflect on what else I can draw from the trip. From a work perspective, I thought about how important good leadership is in setting culture and how a damaging culture focused on positioning and politicking is, with the use of physiological means to diminish people’s ability to contribute and flourish through exclusion and control, and that it must be avoided.
It also brought to the forefront of my mind the resilience of the survivors who even after this atrocity were able to rebuild their lives. It is easy to get caught up in the day to day, but focusing on individuals, recognising uniqueness and individual contribution really needs to be at the forefront, supporting true inclusion and diversity of not only race, religion, ability but also perspective and approach.
Since I have been back the events and thoughts still go through my mind. One of the trip participants shared a blog by Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace prize winner. In the blog Elie says that passiveness and indifference is worse than evil. There is no situation where I don’t think that applies.
I looked for my little girl’s name, Rachel Abrevaya, on the database of names of victims when I got home. Of the five Abrevayas from Kavala, there were two others who were children of Joseph. Regina, 27 and Esterina who was only three. All murdered at Treblinka. I thought about how only days before I had walked to where they would have disembarked the train and how I walked along where they would have walked together, probably carrying Esterina, terrified, to that inexplicably horrific place and last place that they would ever see.